Sean Jansen

Montana’s Most Unique Visitors: The Sandhill Crane

   ~Sean Jansen


The loud, rattling, and unique call is unmistakable. The deep, high pitched bugle is easily distinguished between its other feathered friends the geese. You instantly scan the horizon in search of the unique sound, all to discover the stork like body and immense size. Almost always paired with another, flying around like pterodactyl from Jurassic Park. What are commonly joked about as the, “Ribeye of the Sky,” this seasonal Montana visitor is a treasure for anyone who appreciates our ornithological visitors.


The Sandhill Crane or Anitgone Canadensis, have to be the most unique visitors migrating to Montana. Beyond the extraordinary tourists that flock to our state and National Parks. With Southwest Montana being the headquarters for viewing in our state do to breeding grounds, the state is also a literal layover in their incredible migratory route to Alaska and far northern Canada. These gargantuan cranes and their migrations are a spectacle to be seen and heard.


In winter months, they head south to areas of our country that border both the Caribbean as well as Mexico. Some have even been seen in Cuba. Where on the contrary, their summer destinations are in the far northern reaches of North America. Alaska as well as the Yukon and far Northern Canada with some even crossing the Bering Strait into Russian Siberia. Some of which also over winter and summer in destinations only migrating within the state they choose. Our chance at viewing these long distance travelers happens in Spring and Fall, where we get to hear and see these unique giant birds.


Seeing them in the air is certainly not a difficult task as their calls are loud and harmonious with the others they fly with. But typically throughout our state, they will be seeing in the fields and farmlands foraging. They feast on a multitude of items including small rodents and reptiles, frogs, insects, seeds, and berries. In the fields they also court and breed. Their courtships are a beautiful dance where both birds open their wings and jump to incredible heights. All the while calling back and forth to one another, more jaw dropping than anything Dancing with the Stars and Americas Got Talent could showcase.


Luckily for us, these birds are indeed numerous and therefore your chances of seeing one are quite high if you were to head out in the spring and fall months between migrations. As they are a large bird, their size will help you spot one. They get their name from the gorgeous gray to sand colored feathers, uniquely capped as well with a red forehead and tan cheeks. Whether you get the chance to head out into the fields in search of these birds or are simply walking downtown, the pleasure of hearing and seeing these birds fly overhead is a beautiful expression of nature that Montanan’s are lucky to have.

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